For once, Josip Ilicic’s first thought was for somebody other than his beloved Tina. Palermo supporters are used to seeing their Slovenian trequartista celebrate goals by placing his hands together in the shape of a heart, a gesture of affection towards his long-time partner. But after curling an elegant left-footed finish past Inter’s Samir Handanovic on Sunday, Ilicic’s mind turned instead to his agent.
“I dedicate this goal to Amir Runic,” Ilicic would later say with a grin. This was the player’s 10th goal of the season. Runic had promised him a “cash prize” should he reach double figures.
Far more significant riches might soon be coming Ilicic’s way. The list of leading European clubs said to be monitoring the player grows by the week. Roma are known admirers – their director of sport Walter Sabatini having been the man who signed Ilicic for Palermo in the first place. Dynamo Kyiv had a €7m offer turned down by the club in January.
Ilicic, for his part, claims to be focused solely on helping his team to avoid relegation. Lately he’s been doing a rather good job of it. Before their meeting with Roma on 30 April, Palermo sat joint-bottom of the league, having won just three games all season. When the starting line-ups were announced at the Sicilian club’s Stadio Renzo Barbera, Ilicic’s name was booed. Many supporters believed that he had been failing to pull his weight.
But then a strange thing happened. For the first time in more than four months, Palermo won. In fact they did so convincingly, out-passing and out-manoeuvring Roma en route to a 2-0 victory. Ilicic was at the heart of everything, scoring the opener, then setting up Fabrizio Miccoli for the second before half-time. “Ilicic re-animates Palermo,” screamed Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline.
Suddenly Ilicic could not stop scoring. He did it against Sampdoria, dribbling half the length of the pitch to put his team 2-1 up and set the course for an eventual 3-1 win. He did it against Bologna, placing the ball beyond Gianluca Curci from 20 yards out in what would finish as a 1-1 draw. He did against Catania, too, snatching his team a point in the 95th minute of the Sicilian derby.
Then came Sunday, and his strike against Inter. Five games, five goals, and not a single defeat. The eleven points earned had been enough to raise Palermo off the foot of the table and up to 17th – one spot above the relegation zone. The Sicilians are level on points with Genoa, but hold the head-to-head tie-breaker by virtue of away goals.
Ilicic had pulled his team back from the brink, in other words, but might need to score a couple more goals yet for them to ultimately avoid the drop. The club record for consecutive games with a goal stands at seven, set by the Turkish forward Şükrü Gülesin back in 1950-51. It will take quite something for Ilicic to match that figure, given that his team’s next two games are away to Juventus and at home to an in-form Udinese.
Then again, with Ilicic nothing ever feels impossible. He is an infuriatingly inconsistent player, one who can disappear from view for months on end, yet on other days appear uncontainable, a perfect marriage of finesse and force, footwork and physicality. His broad 6ft 2ins frame lends him power to bully defenders just as easily as he deceives them. Gazzetta dello Sport described him as a “ballerina with a boxer’s physique.”
There is still so much we do not know about Ilicic. Italian spectators had some idea who the player was when he joined Palermo in the summer of 2010, but only because they had just seen him score against his new employers in a Europa League qualifier. By that point the deal to bring him to Sicily was already in place. Sabatini had become infatuated with Ilicic after seeing him star for Maribor as they demolished Hibernian in the previous round.
Maribor themselves had only purchased Ilicic a month or so previously, paying €80,000 to procure him from Interblock Ljubljana in the Slovenian second division. In what must go down as one of the most efficient profit-making exercises in footballing history, they sold him to Palermo for a reported €2.2m.
The player who arrived in Sicily was quiet, timid and introverted. On the rare occasions that he left his home in Mondello, a small town on the outskirts of Palermo, he walked quickly with a hood over his head and eyes fixed to the floor. At 22 he was still just a big kid, one who confessed to feeling intimidated by his new environs. “When I first arrived in Palermo I felt like everything had been scaled up,” he said. “I come from Slovenia, which has about two million inhabitants in total.”
Journalists wanted to know more about Ilicic’s background, about his childhood and reports that his father had died when he was still just an infant. But he was not inclined to share such personal information. All he would say about his younger years was that he had taken up football at the age of seven. His mother and little brother used to come and watch him play.
Instead Ilicic did his talking on the field. Thrown immediately into the starting line-up by Delio Rossi, Ilicic was a revelation, developing an instant rapport with Javier Pastore. He scored four goals in his first six games but it was his strike against Cesena in mid-November which really captured the imagination, a nonchalant flick of the heel to convert a cross which he appeared to have already overrun.
Ilicic shrugged off the praise, claiming to have scored a similar goal while playing for Ljubljana. The Italian press were not satisfied. They wanted to know where this magic came from, how it was that this enigmatic foreigner had developed such a gift. Finally Ilicic let them in on his secret. Before every game, he warms his boots up with a hairdryer.
Three years later, there is much about Ilicic which remains a mystery. He continues to be guarded about his past and shy by nature. Nobody has been able to come up with a particularly good explanation for his extended dips in form. After scoring eight league goals in his first season with Palermo, Ilicic managed just two in the ensuing campaign.
What we do know is that his performance over the next four games will be critical to both his and Palermo’s future. This is the first time in Ilicic’s career that he has scored 10 goals in a single league season. The sense remains that he is destined for bigger things.